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  An Old Friend, Bitten by Y2K

By John Burgess
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 21, 1998; Page F18

As corporate America labors to kill off the Y2K bug, many executives are wondering why they should foot the multimillion-dollar costs, and not the companies that sold them the flawed computer systems. I'm starting to understand these feelings -- my house has the bug, and the company that put it there seems to be saying it's my problem.

It's in an old DOS version of the popular personal finance program Quicken. Down in our basement, you can see it work its tricks plain as day on the screen of a Pentium computer.

Type in the date 1/1/2000 and the program "corrects" it to 1/1/1901. The digits change right before your eyes! And when you record the transaction, the program puts it in what it's sure is the proper chronological order, at the very beginning of the ledger.

In every other regard, I'm a big fan of the program, Quicken version 4.0 for DOS. It does the math busywork of balancing a checkbook, it breaks down spending and works out budgets. I got it in 1991 and it's been so reliable that I've never given serious thought to upgrading. From where I stand, features that later versions offer, such as pie charts and Web access, seem to be mainly frosting.

I now have eight years of records in there, entered by hand every month or so. But in a year, the thing won't work.

I've got plenty of company, I'm sure. Quicken is one of the best-selling programs of all time, and despite the best efforts of its developer, Intuit Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., to build interest in its newer products, there must be huge numbers of people like me who remain happy with the first versions and use them to this day.

Yes, I could upgrade -- later versions of Quicken are Year 2000-savvy. The data I've typed would work fine with the new products. But I don't want the hassle. And I don't much feel like paying for new software when the old works so well -- with the one obvious exception.

So, I wondered, is there a software "patch" that would update the version I use?

To find out, I went first to Intuit's Web site. There I learned that "Intuit Is Committed to Year 2000 Compliance." That sounded good. But when I scrolled down to find specifics on my version, all I found is a statement that it "is intended to support years through 1999."

A nice way of putting it, that. But I wonder if the programmers who wrote it a decade ago "intended" any such thing. Certainly I can't find any mention in the manual that the program would begin trashing records after 1999. Most likely, the programmers were simply doing what most everyone in their trade did in those days: saving memory and space by having the software pay attention only to the last two digits of a year.

The site said free patches would be available for later versions of Quicken that have Y2K problems, but I could find no mention of one for mine. So I got on the phone to call customer support. I waited 24 minutes on hold, then hung up and dialed again. This time I got through in seconds to a friendly rep. She listened to my problem, then told me that "we don't have any Year 2000 fixes" for my problem. And she couldn't tell me whether any were planned.

She did offer, however, to sell me the current product, Quicken 99, at the standard price for people who are upgrading: $34.95 for the basic version and $44.95 for the deluxe. I declined.

So I called the company's press office, told them I was writing a column, and asked about Y2K policies. They were very friendly there as well, but in two days they didn't get back to me with answers to some questions: Does Intuit intend to offer patches for the old DOS versions? Might it offer special discounts for old customers who are forced to buy new versions of the program?

Many companies are taking the stance that they won't. This is an industry of constant change, they say, and it would be unreasonable to expect them to continue to support decade-old products. And in any case, the new versions are better than the old ones, they say -- more features, more functionality -- so you're getting something for your money when you upgrade.

Here's a safe bet: this issue is going to cause more and more heartburn in the software industry as the countdown to 2000 moves through its final year.

John Burgess's email address is burgessj@washpost.com.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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